The Gaslight Anthem probably entered the studio to record American Slang with one question on their minds: How do you follow-up The ’59 Sound? That album more or less broke these Jersey boys; sure they aren’t too far into “mainstream” consciousness, but The ’59 Sound sure put them on the map outside of the punk scene. And with their blend of Springsteen vocals, penchant for story-telling lyrics, and The Clash-like energy there’s very little to not like. But the question still stands: how do you follow it up?
American Slang‘s answer seems to be by cranking out ten great tunes. The album clocks in a little under 35 minutes, and each song comes ready-made while still feeling fairly spontaneous. There’s a level of craft here that wasn’t seen on ’59 Sound, where the songs, great that they were, started to blend together after awhile. That’s not the case on American Slang where each song feels different enough to stand on its own. And The Gaslight Anthem avoids the common pitfall of giving each song a “gimmick” to make it stand out; even similarly paced numbers like the stellar “American Slang” and “Bring It On” have plenty of natural color. The title track might be this year’s blue-collar anthem, while “Bring It On” sounds more defiant and almost flirts with ballad territory. “Stay Lucky”, the song between the two, wouldn’t be out of place on ’59 Sound and gives a great bit of push here.
But 4th song “The Diamond Church Street Choir” is the biggest mark of difference. Instead of utilizing the band’s usual “kick the door open” approach, this song starts with some nifty chord work and settles in as a mid-tempo stomper. And it shows the band moving forward; the focus on craft is especially true here, and vocalist Brian Fallon slows down a bit and sounds pretty good.
Moving on down, “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” expands on this growth. Fallon’s usual tell-me-a-story lyrics are at their best here while the boys behind him focus on a dynamic song that builds throughout. And, almost as if to make up for the slow pace on those two songs, “Orphans” rocks out harder than anything else on American Slang and sounds great while doing it. “Old Haunts” and “The Spirit of Jazz” continue on in similar tradition.
Lyrically, this album abandons the band’s usual Jersey focus for some stories over state borders. The Bronx gets a name drop or two, “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” highlights the character’s travels from London and New York, and the go-to themes of Americana (broken hearts, looking to the past, stories of characters) are consistently present. And in true Gaslight Anthem fashion, there’s plenty of shout outs: “The Cool” (from ’59 Sound) is mentioned on “Bring It On” and “Boxer” mentions a tommy gun; a sure shout to Joe Strummer.
Overall, American Slang‘s pretty good. The musicianship is solid on all fronts, and Fallon’s lyrics continue to be one of the best things about these boys. With each song clocking in under 4 minutes (save the lukewarm closer “We Did It When You Were Young”) and only ten songs, there’s no time to get bored here. The Gaslight Anthem encapsulate nostalgia: while they have an eye on the past, they aren’t afraid to look forward and take risks. And these risks pay off, four out of five stars.